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Standing Up for Women in Afghanistan

A recent protest in Toronto took direct aim at the Taliban’s ongoing brutality

By: /
12 February, 2024
Hazara women protest against the Taliban at Nathan Phillips Square last month. Image: Javed Najafi
John Jonaid
By: John Jonaid
Journalist and human rights activist

“When the Taliban took over, everything changed. I was forced to leave my university and job and lived in constant fear of being kidnapped,” says Shaima Karimi, a Hazara women’s rights advocate in Toronto. “At the time, I was pursuing my master’s degree at a private university while working with the transport minister. I was also involved with many humanitarian organizations advocating for women’s rights.”

In a passionate call for justice, a group of Hazara Afghans and their allies gathered at Nathan Phillips Square on January 28, 2024, to protest against the ongoing atrocities committed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The rally, entitled “No to the Taliban: Call to Action Against Hazara Genocide and Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan” was organized by a grassroots network of local advocates, and aimed to shed light on the alarming situation faced by Hazara women who have become targets for kidnapping, violence and widespread repression by the Taliban. Indeed, the UNHCR Special Representative, UNAMA and other human rights organizations have repeatedly expressed concern about the dire situation of Hazara women in the country.

Shaima is one of the many women in Afghanistan who were seen on television trying to board a US military plane at the Kabul airport in August 2021 in a bold attempt to escape the incoming tyranny of the Taliban regime. “That day”, she said, “I lost many of my friends and relatives, and many women were abducted by the Taliban. It was a moment that I felt was the end of my life and the end of Hazara women.” 

Shaima managed to escape from Afghanistan and finally made her way to Canada, joining the over 47,000 Afghans who have arrived here via several government-run programs. She is now actively advocating for women’s rights in Afghanistan and Canada, volunteering with the Hazara Women Organization

Halima Bahman, one of the leaders of the protest and co-founder of Hazara Women Organization, expressed deep concern over the plight of Hazara women and girls in Afghanistan. “At this very moment, Hazara women and girls are being kidnapped by the Taliban, seized from the streets under the excuse of not wearing proper hijabs. They are prevented from attending school and university, forced to hide in the shadows of their homes,” Halima said. 

The protest was prompted by the escalating atrocities committed by the Taliban against the Hazara people, which the community, along with various academic, political and humanitarian organizations, have labeled as a genocide. 

Halima shared insights into the twisted ideology behind the Taliban’s actions, which includes directives like “if someone is an infidel, kill the man and claim the woman.” Their definition of an infidel, she added, “included everyone who followed Shia Islam, the faith of most Hazaras, leading to the widespread abduction of women across Hazara communities.”

She further emphasized the brutal nature of the Taliban’s tactics, stating that “they targeted anyone within their reach, declaring that men aged seven to 70 should be killed. Hazara men were killed, and women went into hiding.”

The situation for Hazara women has significantly worsened since the Taliban seized control in mid-August 2021. Basic rights have been denied, with all Afghan women and girls banned from attending school and going to work. Halima further highlighted the persecution faced by Hazara people, dating back to the 19th century. She personally survived one notorious assault by the Taliban on her home city of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998, forcing her family to flee Afghanistan for their survival. 

“It was a time of intense fear, where the choice seemed to be between death and being assaulted by the Taliban. With six sisters, three of them young, we feared the Taliban would come and take us, along with my cousins, family members, and neighbours.”

The Hazara people are persecuted and discriminated against due to their ethnicity and Shia faith in a predominantly Sunni-Muslim country. They are denied most of their basic rights such as access to education and political participation. They have also faced enslavement, mass killings, and forced displacement throughout history. Indeed, as the UNHCR noted in 2020, “in the 1890s, 60 percent of the Hazara population was killed, and those who survived were dispossessed of their land, displaced from their homes, and sold as slaves.” 

Now that Taliban have become the government of Afghanistan, the hope of displaced Hazara to ever call Afghanistan their home is fading as thousands have been forced to flee as refugees once more and most are stranded in stateless situations in many parts of the world. 

“I’m a survivor of genocide in Afghanistan. This has been going on for 120 years, and it’s time for it to be acknowledged. The Taliban is specifically targeting Hazara women by killing them, by kidnapping them, by humiliating them, by taking away their lands,” said  Halima. “As long as it’s not acknowledged and not mentioned and people are not aware of it, it’s going to continue and now it’s continuing very seriously, very aggressively under the Taliban,” she added.     

Halima also stressed the importance of creating space and opportunity for Hazara women to have their voices heard, including in Canada. “There are many female voices, just not enough people willing to listen” said  Halima in an interview with Humans in Flight. “Over 20 years of democracy in Afghanistan, Hazara women were very successful. They were on the front lines of promoting education and women’s rights.  In Canada to have a platform to inform Canadians of what is happening in Afghanistan and support Hazara women who remain behind,” is essential if there is to be any hope she added.

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